WIPPS weaned off taxpayer funds this year

Source: Wausau Daily Herald

WAUSAU – A policy institute on the University of Wisconsin Marathon County campus is now in the consulting business to help pay all its bills.

The Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service will no longer get funding through the UW System and must raise between $400,000 and $500,000 a year to cover programs and operations. The Institute hosts community forums, workshops and speakers around the state, and now it’s offering consulting services such as surveys, market research and strategic planning.

It’s been a gradual transition to this point of financial independence, said Eric Giordano, WIPPS director since its 2007 founding. The financial changes have required the institute to hone its focus. The organization reduced its staff from about 10 at its peak to seven positions now, three are full-time.

“We’re going to have to take on more business-like attributes,” Giordano said. “This definitely has forced us to really focus on what we think our priorities are.”

Giordano and the WIPPS team strive to study and offer solutions to community problems and to spur dialogue and civic involvement across the political spectrum. In its new branch, the Wisconsin Center for Consultative Services, businesses and other organizations will pay WIPPS to study problems and offer solutions.

“We’re an organization that tries to cut through the cynicism, cut through the partisanship,” Giordano said. “There are so few honest brokers out there. I really think WIPPS is an honest broker.”

The 2015-2017 state budget cut $250 million from the UW System, which meant programs across the state had to slim down. Diminished funding in previous years gave Giordano a heads up that the funding for WIPPS could run dry.

“We don’t feel like we can complain, because everybody’s facing it,” he said. The university used to cover about $225,000 of WIPPS’ roughly $475,000 budget. WIPPS will now fund raise through an annual campaign and seek more support from foundations and grantors.

WIPPS funding from the university was never meant to last forever, said Keith Montgomery, regional executive officer and dean for the northern UW Colleges.

“When the budget reduction hit from the state that definitely made it closed-ended,” he said of WIPPS funding. “My biggest concern is academic programs. That’s what I have to be most concerned about.”

WIPPS still has offices on the UWMC campus, employs students interns and offers courses for students in politics and leadership.

It also helps bring speakers to UWMC and other campuses to talk about hot issues such as the pope’s comments on climate change and the relevancy of congress.

But the cost of that programming will now have to come from foundations and individual donors, as well as WIPPS’ consulting.

Kevin Hermening is contributing to a WIPPS public issues series with local attorney Dean Dietrich. The two are covering the costs of some events over next three years, and Hermening plans to continue beyond that. The topics could include things that matter locally, such as early childhood or mental health issues, Giordano said.

A group of students from across the state, and even one from Brigham Young University in Utah, just spent three weeks with Giordano on WIPPS’ first Washington Seminar. The participants saw the inner workings of government in Madison and in Washington D.C., meeting with lobbyists, political staffers, media and elected officials. Many told Giordano it changed their lives.

It changed Jeanette Brand’s perspective. She described the program as “mind blowing,” and she could only attend the Madison portion. Brand, 36, is a student at University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County and will finish her bachelor’s in political science next spring.

She’s interested in politics, because she wants to make positive change in the world and the Washington Seminar showed her how to effect change.

“It showed you how to navigate through that system,” Brand said of the seminar. “It gave us connections, personal connections, personal phone numbers.”

And she wants to stay in touch with Giordano.

“He gives you the idea that you need to get involved,” Brand said. “He shows you reasons why you should get involved.”

Besides its direct work with students, WIPPS is part of a volunteer income tax assistance program that’s brought $1 million back to the community through tax returns, Giordano said. WIPPS has a mentorship program with the state Department of Public Instruction that pairs college students with at-risk middle school students in Wausau.

And then there’s the consulting, which is meant to share the expertise of UWMC faculty with members of the larger community. WIPPS is now planning a study with Marathon County businesses on how to attract and retain workers. It’s exploring the feasibility of developing an “active aging center” in the area. And the goal is to expand beyond central Wisconsin.

“We believe in our mission,” Giordano said. “We think it’s making a difference.

“We’ll continue to work as hard as we can to keep making that difference.”

Read the entire Wausau Daily Herald article here.

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